Economics 101

The Meaning of Justice and Mercy in Public Life

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The prophet Micah told his readers that God requires of us, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). But what does this mean?

The Meaning of Justice and Mercy

What does it mean that God requires that we act justly? It means we are to abide by his law in our relationships with one another. The second half of the Ten Commandments deals with these requirements. Namely, we should honor all of our relationships and refrain from murder, theft, and lying as we deal with other people. Finally, we should be content with ourselves and refrain from coveting the posessions of others. To promote justice, God ordained government to penalize and punish those who would violate others. This ordination is limited to specific crimes, as God has reserved for himself the task of final judgment and punishment.

Second, we are to love mercy. The Bible asserts that all people have failed to live in complete accord with God’s law, but also states that God has been merciful to us in Christ Jesus. In particular, Christ died on the cross as a substitute to atone for the failures of people. Mercy, then, is a matter of God’s sovereign choice and pleasure. Though no one deserves God’s mercy and grace, he nevertheless has chosen to provide it in Christ. It follows that if we love the mercy extended to us by God we will show mercy as a matter of personal volition to others around us.

But this raises other questions. Are we still showing mercy if we abdicate this responsibility to government? Can government be the agency of dispensing mercy?

The Meaning of Mercy in Alleviating Poverty and Suffering

The answer to both questions is a resounding no. The government has no inherent resources from which to show mercy. Therefore, in order to act as an agent of mercy it must do so by violating justice. That is, it must use force to acquire the resources from some people that it will give to others. In this sense it has denied someone’s property rights and participated in moving someone’s boundary stone. This does damage to the very concept of what mercy is.

It is quite natural for us to empathize with the plight of the unfortunate suffering of others. As such, charity has always been valued by us. Our brotherhood with all people affirms our humanity. However, we must realize that mercy is always a voluntary choice or else it would not be merciful. True charity has always been defined as voluntary sacrifice motivated by love. If someone could force someone else to be merciful to them, it would cease to be mercy. Furthermore, we should be reminded that God chose to have mercy on those upon whom he would have mercy. We are never in any position to demand that God provide it for us as we have all fallen far short of his just requirements.

If we truly believe in treating our neighbors mercifully, we cannot abdicate that responsibility to the government. We must actively participate in charitable acts of kindness if our concern is to be genuine. If we abdicate to government and try to force others to pay for what we presume is charitable, we have been neither charitable or just.

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